Crossing the streams

9th March 2018 at 00:00
Many argue that schools should undertake more cross-curricular learning in Stem subjects to reflect the collaboration pupils will encounter in the world of work

When was the last time the science, maths and design technology teams at your school collaborated on a scheme of work? When was the last time they shared their planning? When was the last time you even saw them speak to each other?

The likelihood is that the integration of these subjects rarely happens. The timetable is crowded, the curriculum content bursting at the seams and workload is heavy. Teachers are just trying to survive, so there’s little time for cross-curricular working.

This is bad news for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), according to industry experts.

One of the reasons students are falling short of the demands placed on them when they reach the world of work, they say, is that in many schools, Stem subjects are typically taught in isolation, yet in the workplace, skills relating to each of the subjects intersect.

It’s vitally important that students gain some understanding of the connection between the different Stem disciplines, say those in the industry, so how can we help it to happen? And is that really a school’s job?

Skills overlap

One of the areas where Stem skills significantly overlap is engineering. According to Mark Titterington, chief executive of EngineeringUK, the majority of engineering roles combine knowledge from across Stem and, even within the different disciplines, the balance of those skills differs.

“One biomedical engineer could use electronics and computing skills to develop a pacemaker while another researches materials and living tissue for an implant,” he says. “A chemical engineer could be designing how to remove impurities from water or solving problems on a chocolate production line.

“In engineering, real-life application draws on a variety of Stem subjects. Giving school students the opportunity to experience that crossover in the classroom will provide an insight into their use in real jobs in the industry.”

At the moment, many claim this is not happening in the majority of secondary schools, with subjects still being taught in isolation. “There is no cross-cutting theme that is being taught, and many schools are very traditional and teach Stem subjects in those pillars of subjects,” says Gill Collinson, head of centre and partnerships at the National STEM Learning Network.

More could be done

Laura Chisholm, a science specialist leader of education for Portsmouth Teaching Alliance and a teacher coordinator for the Royal Academy of Engineering, feels that may be a little harsh: some schools are attempting to create links. But she admits that more could be done.

“Collaboration across departments in schools does take place but not often enough,” she says.

She believes the main issue preventing further joint working is time. “With curriculum and grading changes, most Stem subjects are either already on the new curriculum and grading system or transitioning through it,” she says. “This means many teachers are throwing vast amounts of time and energy into adapting their planning and assessment frameworks.

“With these external and internal pressures...the dream of Stem collaboration can sometimes slip down our list of priorities, maybe even sometimes get lost.”

Chisholm believes the best way to make Stem collaboration a priority in schools is to get headteachers and the senior leadership team on board, and give staff the time and resources they need to push through change. You sell it to them on boosted results, she says.

“Through collaboration, we could much better reinforce skills into context across the curriculum, leading to a much greater understanding and depth of learning for our students,” says Chisholm.

“Whenever I have run a project and involved the maths department, they have produced much higher-level work with much higher levels of enthusiasm from the students. It makes sense: students love a purpose to their learning, to handle data that they have a connection with.”

The good news for Stem teachers looking to introduce cross-cutting of subjects in the classroom is that there is a wide range of resources out there – many of them free – to help in the creation of lesson plans and projects spanning several Stem subjects.

One such initiative is the Connecting STEM Teachers programme, overseen by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE). It has created a national network of support for teachers across all Stem subjects and ensures they have the “knowledge and confidence to engage a greater number and wider spectrum of students in Stem”, says Scott Atkinson, education programmes manager at the RAE.

“The programme follows a ‘train-the-trainer’ model,” explains Atkinson.

“Expertise at the academy is utilised to develop continual professional development (CPD) courses, and Stem learning and teaching resources, which are delivered to the teacher coordinators working on the programme.

“The teacher coordinators, who are responsible for setting up regional networks of support for Stem teachers in their areas, then cascade the training via termly CPD/network meetings within their regions.”

Collaborative projects

As part of the programme, teacher coordinators organise collaborative projects, many of which span different Stem subjects. Atkinson cites the example of a recent project led by two teacher coordinators in the South West of England, who set pupils the task of constructing their own mini arcade gaming cabinets and coded computer games.

“Teams called upon their design and technology skills to build the wooden cabinets, electronics skills to wire up the components, and their software engineering skills to program the games and software for the cabinet,” says Atkinson. “Once completed, it will be a usable piece of equipment...for the school population.

“It is great to see such enthusiasm and creativity being incorporated within the collaborative project design. These sorts of activities provide a great example to children as to the kind of experiences that can be achieved through engineering.”

Another organisation looking to showcase these experiences and promote greater collaboration across different Stem subjects within schools is the National STEM Learning Network. “We think it is hugely important that students have cross-cutting skills,” says Collinson.

“We call them ‘employability skills’ – that’s where a student may understand a particular subject, but they don’t necessarily understand the context within which that knowledge will be applied in the real world.”

To this end, the network runs programmes such as STEM Ambassadors, where it takes volunteers from industry and academia into schools so that they can provide context for how that knowledge is used in industry, she says.

Another important initiative the network has set up is its STEM Insight programme, which enables teachers to go on placements with companies that operate in Stem-related industries for five to 10 days. During these placements, they get to see how Stem businesses work from the ground up – from the shop floor up to the board room – which enables them to see at first hand how Stem skills are applied within industry.

Will schemes such as this promote cross-curricular work in schools? That’s the hope of the industry, but whether schools manage to break down the silos between already busy subjects, we shall have to wait and see.

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist

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